Jews have always had a tenuous relationship with our own internal political power.
One of the fiercest debates in Tanakh centers on the appointing of a king. Only G-d should have ultimate authority and power, many of the early prophets taught, so why should we appoint a centralized political leader who will inevitably fall victim to corruption?
Furthermore, the inception of the Jewish nation was borne out of an escape from Egypt, where slavery was ubiquitous as a direct result of the deification of a political leader (pharaoh). Never again should that happen, the Torah makes clear. When a king was finally appointed, Jewish law states that there must be limitations on power.
In other words, for thousands of years Judaism has been teaching that power has the dangerous potential to corrupt.
At the same time, however, exile, or the lack of political power, is a constant negative motif within Judaism. The pathologies of exile, our classic sources expound, is a temporary punishment bestowed on the Jewish people, very much highlighting the wider brokenness throughout the world. One day in the future, Jews have long believed, exile will be eradicated from the world in the Messianic era.
In other words, for thousands of years Judaism has been teaching that powerlessness isn’t a virtue and that power isn’t ipso facto evil.
There is no better time in Judaism to discuss this dialectic than Hanukkah. We know that the inception of the Hanukkah story began as a Jewish rebel group known as the Maccabees revolted against Greek hegemony to recapture the Temple, Jerusalem and Jewish political autonomy. This act, along with the subsequent miracle of the oil, has been celebrated by Judaism for over 2,000 years.
But any student of Jewish history knows that the story of Hanukkah has a darker ending.
The Jewish Hasmonean dynasty that subsequently rose to power were cruel and corrupt leaders. There was no room for political or religious difference and anyone, Jewish or not, with a disparate opinion was dealt with harshly. Furthermore, the Hasmonean dynasty eradicated the traditional Jewish separation of powers between religious and political leadership.
It is for these reasons that the rabbis all but attempted to erase the Hasmoneans/Maccabees from Jewish history, not giving them any place in the Mishna, and when discussing Hanukkah in later sources opting only for discussion on the candles instead of any talk of war.
These two central lessons of Hanukkah must be equally and simultaneously internalized. Hanukkah teaches the importance and celebration of political power within our tradition. Contrary to a rising modern sentiment, Jewish tradition, both ancient and contemporary, recognizes that political autonomy and strength are good things.
In that same vein, however, Judaism certainly understands that power can turn the most moral of causes into a corrupt and problematic enterprise. Power then, in a Jewish context, must be continuously checked and challenged.
It is no mistake that in the mid-20th century, with the rise and proliferation of Zionism, the Maccabees were reclaimed as Jewish heroes after thousands of years of being purposely ignored by Jewish sources. The parallels between the two narratives, both centering on a Jewish return to political autonomy, inspired looking at the Maccabees in a new light as reclaimed Jewish figures.
But what occurs after the miracle—whether the miracle of Hanukkah or the miracle of the state of Israel—is just as important as the miracle itself. With Hanukkah we know that things ended badly. The unchecked power turned corrupt, resulting in a uniquely dark era of Jewish history.
With Israel, we have the chance to learn from past events and understand that power is something to be simultaneously celebrated and constantly examined.
This Hanukkah, as we celebrate miracles both ancient and modern, let us also take a moment to reflect on the deep-seated wisdom vis-a-vis power within the heart of Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah and a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He can be reached at Dlevine21@gmail.com